David Lauderdale

Hilton Head High cross country runners keep one another on track

The five senior Hilton Head Island High School cross country runners are from left: Rosie Dungan, Mackenzie Johnston, Michael Brewer, Jack Felix and Sara Manesiotis.
The five senior Hilton Head Island High School cross country runners are from left: Rosie Dungan, Mackenzie Johnston, Michael Brewer, Jack Felix and Sara Manesiotis. David Lauderdale, The Island Packet

The Crazy Eights are five high school seniors who have learned something important early in life: it's not lonely at the top.

They're long-distance runners who have gotten to the top in large part because they are always together.

When they came to the Hilton Head Island High School cross country program as eighth-graders, Coach Bill Wrightson dubbed them the Crazy Eights.

Since then, they've been running year-round, stride after painful stride, each of them covering about 2,000 miles a year. It's an experience few ever know, and fewer still understand.

They've grown so close their addresses are almost interchangeable. Their parents joke that they are a cult.

The kids say they're simply doing what they love. They push each other, and push themselves. Their coaches say they bought into a demanding program, sacrificed to the max and turned a lonely grind into shared joy. Their parents say they are blessed to witness it.

Early Saturday morning, the Crazy Eights pumped their taut legs over a frigid Columbia terrain in their last cross country meet for the Seahawks. The boys' team won the state championship, its second in a row. The girls finished second, after back-to-back championships.

Seniors Jack Felix, Mackenzie Johnston, Michael Brewer, Sara Manesiotis and Rosie Dungan gave it their best, and got strong support from younger teammates who will now follow in their footsteps.

"Why would you run 15 miles every day?" they get asked a lot at school. "Why would you do that?"

In response, they wonder why others would want to party every day.

The hierarchy

It's not as if running is all they do.

All but Sara are surfing fanatics. But she's right there with them at Burkes Beach when they skim the surf and beg the mighty Atlantic to bring it on.

Michael, who they call "Goliath," is a musician. Rosie is an artist. She spent last week's fall break at school, painting a mural on D-Hall.

Jack and Michael compete on high-performance cycling teams. Jack's on the school swim team, and Sara plays soccer and basketball. Her coach calls her "Queenie"; the social butterfly, always on the homecoming court.

They all run track.

They run every single day. When coaches Wrightson and Max Mayo say to take a break, they run. On Christmas and New Year's Day, they run.

They do summer running camp and weight-lifting. When the season begins in the dog days of summer, you'll see the teams starting a 10-mile run at 7 a.m. on the roads of Hilton Head Plantation. In the afternoon, they'll run four more miles.

The Crazy Eights know that the wide-eyed eighth-graders are watching them, just as they used to watch Dominic DeSantis, now running for Purdue University, and Cory Beck.

"We run to the best of our ability every day," Sara said.

"Our coach says, 'Beat your best self,' " Rosie said.

"We're all really humbled by each other," Jack said. "It keeps us competitive and keeps us focused."

They know there's a team hierarchy, and they rule. "On paper, it's like communism," one says.

"The younger boys, to some degree, run because they're scared," Michael said.

"The girls run because we've made them love it," Sara said.

They call that cross country humor. They describe their humor as "immature."

"When we all get together," Rosie said, "the maturity level plummets."

Voice of reason

Cross country swallows entire families because they spend so much time together.

Sara's father, Mike Manesiotis, is the defacto team operations manager. Sara said he's the "tent putter-upper" at all the meets. It's set up when they get there, always in the best spot. At a recent Nike regional meet, it was so cold he had sides on the tent and heaters inside. They called it Camp Hilton Head.

Every time the teams run in Columbia, they load up on carbohydrates the night before the race with a big meal at Jack's grandmother's house. To the teams, Judy Felix is "Pasta Mama." She's the only person not on the team to have a team sweatshirt.

Jack's mom, Lindy Felix, and Mackenzie's mom, Suzanna Johnston, grew up together in Greenwood.

Now they're watching their children grow up together. They think the Crazy Eights have helped, by-and-large keeping each other out of trouble.

Rosie's mother, Amy Dungan, says the kids are not angels. The kids themselves say they've had sibling-like fights and low points. But Amy Dungan said they've maintained a clean lifestyle.

"At a time in their lives when peer pressure prevails," she said, "the Crazy Eights have stood strong together, each taking turns as the 'voice of reason' when tempted to stray."

Lindy Felix said, "Sometimes it's not always the cool thing to do what they're doing."

They definitely don't do it for the accolades. Cross country results are sometimes closer to the newspaper's weather map than the front page.

They've done it because to them it's fun. It's a challenge. And if you make it to the top, you're never alone.